Master narratives become the background music of our lives, undercurrents so ingrained that the violence they often engender is rendered unremarkable. One master narrative is the tale we tell about the United States being a welcoming country to immigrants, about how the “bootstrap” mentality enables one to build and sustain a life here. Another is that incidents of police and state violence, incidents of domestic terrorism, and white nationalism are the exceptions and not the rule. Such master narratives lead to the dominance of reactive slogans and movements, such as #makeamericagreatagain and #bluelivesmatter, when Black, Brown, queer, and trans folks and their allies remind the world that their lives do, in fact, matter.
Knowing how to listen beyond the background music to hear the sounds and stories of those who don’t fit into the “accepted” narrative can be difficult in our own time. But it’s even more difficult when it comes to history. That’s why a complete overhaul is needed in how we approach and understand history, particularly the “how” and the “why” these master narratives have been sustained at all.
Counternarratives—the stories of those whose lives disrupt the fictions of master narratives—thus emerge as necessary and potentially life-saving works. Counternarratives are the antithesis to stories that benefit the lives of the few. In looking at the works of Black women, they are an ongoing conversation, a sisterhood of reference and retrieval that arcs back to 1619 and the beginnings of African enslavement.
The difficulty, then, is how to tell an almost forgotten story, one often lacking a wealth of archival evidence to support it. Writing counternarratives requires considerable skill, creativity, and, paradoxically, imagination. Two authors, Saidiya Hartman and Erica Armstrong Dunbar, have excelled at advancing these crucial counternarratives for Black women. Hartman privileges forgotten Black women of the 19th and 20th centuries following Reconstruction, and Dunbar illuminates the life of an enslaved woman who escaped to freedom in the Revolutionary War era. Hartman explains:
All the characters and events found in this book are real; none are invented. What I know about the lives of these young women has been culled from the journals of rent collectors; surveys and monographs of sociologists; trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and parole officers; interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists; and prison case files, all of which represent them as a problem.
Building a counternarrative, then, necessitates not simply making visible “a problem,” but beginning where most master narratives retreat: the margins. For Hartman and Dunbar, marginalia become the center: so-called minor figures become the key players, witnesses, and protagonists. These authors point to queer methods of kinship and mothering, as well as nonnuclear structures of family and care, as the sustenance of much of Black living. Hartman in particular highlights the persistence of gender and sexual freedom, even as prosecution for perceived immoral behavior became an imminent threat to Black women and girls. Dunbar illustrates multiple moments of refusal, in the sustained illegality of a Black woman fighting for her liberty and personhood. Although, as Hartman contends, “the entanglement of violence and sexuality, care and exploitation continues to define the meaning of being black and female,” so too do active agency and resistance. Both make clear that these “problematic” women were in daily battles against forces that would render them either captive or dead.
For those familiar with Hartman’s work, Wayward Lives advances her continued interventions and ruptures in our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade, its afterlives, and the “incomplete project of freedom.” The book privileges the numerous ways Black folks, and in particular Black women, sought liberation in the decades immediately following slavery and Reconstruction. This time was characterized by sharecropping in the South and a rapidly industrializing North, both systems positioning Black people in conditions adjacent to slavery. This was the era of the burgeoning American ghetto and the police as an extralegal arm of state-sanctioned white supremacy. For a race of people only recently unshackled, their claims of agency ran afoul of the legalized surveillance, discriminatory housing, and racist moral codes that followed their transition from three- to five-fifths human.
Weaving in and out of disciplinary standards for both historical and archival works, Wayward Lives employs tools such as speculative imaginings and possibility to elaborate on the potential thoughts, wishes, and fears each character might have experienced. Hartman is at her most virtuosic in these moments of supposition, where entire pages, sections, and chapters hinge on key words like “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “possible.” She deftly points to what we can never know about these figures while underlining what we know for sure: that they lived, struggled, thought, and loved. While their interiorities are certainly lost to us now, we must nonetheless acknowledge and venerate their depths.
In her own description of her methodology, Hartman asserts:
I have crafted a counter-narrative liberated from the judgment and classification that subjected young black women to surveillance, arrest, punishment, and confinement. … The endeavor is to recover the insurgent ground of these lives; to exhume open rebellion from the case file, to untether waywardness, refusal, mutual aid, and free love from their identification as deviance, criminality, and pathology; to affirm free motherhood (reproductive choice), intimacy outside the institution of marriage, and queer and outlaw passions; and to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked, but is nearly unimaginable.
Hartman’s focus is primarily on the Black quarters of Philadelphia and New York, where young Black women lived, loved, and survived under everyday threats of arrest, prosecution, or worse for even the suspicion of “illicit” or “immoral conduct.” Hallways, alleys, one-room slum apartments, and other marginal locales are the primary sites of these “illicit” acts. It’s not surprising, then, that Hartman’s writing and structure themselves create marginalia, a purposeful inhabitation of the fringes.
In an early section, Hartman turns her unrelenting eye to a haunting photo of a young girl whose prepubescent body is positioned in the recognizable pose of “the odalisque, the pose of the whore and the slave.” Here is where Hartman shines: in her choice of subject matter, her writing skill, and her refusal to turn away from the grimmest details of Black American life. She states that she spent more than one year with this singular image of an unnamed girl. Her striking expression yielded few, if any, answers, but, for Hartman, her existence continues to generate numerous pertinent questions:
One wonders if she had ever been a child. By age ten, had she learned everything about sex she would ever need to know? By twelve, had she no interest in it? … Had she become prematurely knowing because of what had already been done to her or by observing the world around her? Was the violence experienced in an attic studio or at a neighbor’s house irreparable? If so, how did it determine her course? … Did it make her yearn for a tender touch capable of assuaging and redressing the long history of violence captured in a pose?
Hartman makes clear the difficulty of this photo and its larger truth, admitting that “it is a hard place to begin, with the avowal that violence is not an exception but rather that it defines the horizon of her existence.”
Our understanding of both Hartman’s and Dunbar’s texts and of their methodologies hinges on our willingness to reposition ourselves so that we understand violence is not a symptom but rather the condition of Black female life, the condition that necessitates such imaginative experiments. Reclaiming these long-forgotten people requires a subversion of the processes by which they were lost, forcing us to look beyond “evidence” or “archives” of what they experienced, certain in the knowledge that such standards were generated by and serve exclusively the master narrative. How do we read into the archival absence? What lies under the need for so-called proof? What Hartman requires is that we not avert our gaze, that we question how we’re looking at the “marginal” stories of our past.
Wayward Lives, then, becomes a response to Hartman’s own seminal call in her essay “Venus in Two Acts.” There, she introduces “critical fabulation,” a rearranging of chronological and logical story elements as a method guiding this genre of research and writing. She states, “By throwing into crisis ‘what happened when’ and by exploiting the ‘transparency of sources’ as fictions of history, I wanted to make visible the production of disposable lives … to describe ‘the resistance of the object,’ if only by first imagining it, and to listen for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity.” This framing reveals the need to subvert and deploy the imaginary and the subjunctive: to run counter to colonial disposability, to function as radical acts of recovery.
Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge is a similar intervention and celebration of counternarrativity. In this account, Dunbar reorients the reader away from charitable readings of the first First Family. Many historians have long decried allegedly anachronistic readings of the Washingtons’ slave-owning practices. Yet Dunbar’s research decisively affirms that the Washingtons fought tirelessly to retain ownership of other humans, even when doing so meant the president was breaking the laws of his young nation.
Building a counternarrative necessitates not simply making visible “a problem,” but beginning where most master narratives retreat: the margins.
In fact, when the Washingtons relocated from Mount Vernon, in Virginia, to Philadelphia, the laws of Pennsylvania dictated that enslaved persons be freed after six months of living in the state. The Washingtons, however, had no intention of freeing their slaves, deciding instead to send them back to Mount Vernon every six months, effectively resetting the clock and skirting the law.
While Dunbar’s archival research provides copious information about how the Washingtons’ treatment of their slaves while up North differed from the more physically demanding field labor their slaves faced in the South, she makes clear that no amount of finery, housework, or any other alleged ease ever amounted to freedom. Despite knowing that she would remain a hunted woman, Judge stole herself away, escaping to New Hampshire. For years afterward she struggled to remain free, refusing the pleas of Washington’s emissaries, sent to discreetly fetch his “property” in hopes of avoiding a public scandal.
Although Judge’s life as a fugitive was marked by poverty, strenuous labor, and extreme loss and heartache, she still maintained that she would rather live in such conditions as a free woman than in a wealthy, prominent household as a slave. Much like the young girl who so captivated Hartman, Judge had a defiance and continued resistance, revealing that no supposed generosity or kindness negates the need for full personhood and agency.
What marks this turn in Black women’s writings is how both their subjects and their research are defined by “fugitivity.” For both Hartman and Dunbar, writing is itself a fugitive act—a stealing away of the remnants and fragments of conventional historical records, a way of writing into the possibility of such tremendous loss. As theorist and poet Fred Moten explains, “Fugitivity, then, is a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed. It’s a desire for the outside, for a playing or being outside, an outlaw edge.”
Neither text uses many quotation marks or any footnotes, only unnumbered endnotes. Consequently, both texts read as seamless, unblemished accounts, which are nonetheless based on staggering amounts of research. There is nothing to disrupt the flow of reading. More important, there is no documentation to act as “evidence” of these lives and of both authors’ interventions into the archival remnants. These lives are evidence enough.
The beauty of these counternarratives is also their terror: each points to the truism that Black women have been telling the truth of this country for centuries. The materiality of their lives offers more than enough evidence to demonstrate how we arrived at what feels like an apocalyptic present. Contemporary cries for the document—footage from body or dashboard cameras, cell phone videos, anything other than the material reality of Black death—echo back to these master narratives, with the same devastating effects. Such counternarratives, therefore, have potential not merely to recover what has already been lost to archival death but also to prevent future casualties.
The takeaways from Hartman and Dunbar are the violence and precarity that continue to define so much of Black womanhood. Their subversive methodology becomes the major practice relegating the original documents to minor, nearly obsolete status. And while hope remains a constant lifeline in the continued efforts for Black liberation, it seems for both authors that the truest hope is for a disavowal of the types of documentation, record keeping, and mythologies that don’t affirm and sustain Black life.
This article was commissioned by Imani Radney.